Susan Taubes, introduction by David Rieff: “Divorcing”

Hosted by

Author, David Rieff. Photo by David Sontag Rieff.

David Rieff discusses “Divorcing” by Susan Taubes, an autobiographical novel with phantasmagoric components: the reimagined end of a marriage. Now republished by New York Review Books, it was first released just weeks before its author’s early death in 1969. Unlike other experimental novels from the time period, this one is built to last, and it goes all over the place, with a lot of different threads, and a partly dreamlike narrative. A painful novel about the intimately awful horror of daily life, anyone who reads it will feel torn apart.

Excerpt from “Divorcing” by Susan Taubes.

While traveling, Sophie Blind carried her accumulation of some thirty-five years in boxes, suitcases, trunks, barrels, crates and the like. Not on her person, or necessarily accompanying her person. On her person she carried only what was necessary depending on the nature of the journey—whether by boat, plane, train, bus or foot—its length and destination and, finally, the number of persons traveling.
           This seemed the obvious way to deal with things: pack and unpack and pack again if you were traveling, and Sophie had been traveling all her life. When she married she continued traveling with her hus- band. Ezra Blind was working on a book that might take all his life to complete, or at least the next twenty years; his work required going to libraries and meeting scholars of different countries. Fortunately Ezra managed to get invited as a visiting lecturer to good universities on both sides of the Atlantic as far as Jerusalem. So they lived in many different cities, sometimes for only a few months, sometimes for as long as two years, and traveled to other places in between. Sophie liked traveling. She also liked to have some things she cherished, a few familiar objects around her, wherever she was, beyond the more or less same sky with its same sun and moon and more or less same walls. Some things she found, some she stole, some she bought. Sophie liked traveling. For a wedding present from her father-in-law Sophie asked for an extension of their honeymoon trip instead of a fur coat. Not want a fur coat? Their daughter-in-law must have a fur coat. When at the birth of a son a fur coat was bought, it was for their respective family pictures. She wore the coat for them. She was their daughter-in-law. But did she have to take it along with her everywhere while traveling with her husband? Yes, because Ezra paid part. His father had said, “I want to buy Sophie a five-hundred-dollar fur coat.” Ezra said, “Buy her one for seven hundred dollars. I know a man through whom we can get a nine-hundred-dollar coat for seven hundred dollars. I pay the two hundred and we save four hundred and she will have the best coat.” With Ezra Sophie wore the fur coat and jewelry he bought for her. Whenever Ezra felt desperate about their future, he bought Sophie a piece of heavy silver jewelry.
           He liked her to dress in black. Black was what she was wearing when he proposed to her and it suited her best and went best with the jewelry he bought her. He was always ready to buy Sophie another good black dress. A good black dress was for a lifetime. What Sophie always dreamed of having was a white nightgown, long and soft of the finest cotton or flannel. But Ezra couldn’t understand why she wanted it. She looked better naked. Sometimes he asked her to come to bed in the fur coat. A nightgown? That was a luxury.
           Not everything Sophie kept accumulating followed her in boxes and by freight in crates and trunks; that was difficult and expensive and complicated. Besides, if they were going south, they wouldn’t need all their coats and woolens, although they might need them the year after or at some future time, for they never knew where they would proceed to next. Similarly she would store outgrown children’s clothes which could be useful for the next child. Of course most of the things she collected from different places on the way she could not take with her but stored, depending on where they happened to be, with friends and relatives who were settled. Everything had to be kept for the time when she would be settled and have a great big house with many wings and floors, a cellar for storage, an attic to keep all the pets she had promised the children. In her mind it was all together, she was always in an imagined house, leaving for a trip and choosing one or two things to take with her. But perhaps all she really wanted was that imaginary house and she would always go on traveling and collecting things and living everywhere. In the meantime she man- aged quite well storing a box here and a suitcase there, with friends or relatives who were settled. Then, if she stayed in the same place for more than a year, even though nothing was ever definite, she could ask for certain things she wanted to be sent. She always wished she could have known and packed in view of future circumstances.
           It was a weakness, she knew, to accumulate and to keep and to remember where she had left things. Things got lost, but that was part of traveling. Not only individual objects, but packages, a whole suitcase, mysteriously lost. She did her best to take care of things, and if they got lost despite her efforts she was cheerfully resigned to it, unlike Ezra who recalled the lost object over and over again. Whether it was something precious to him or simply something he needed that moment, each time a new loss was discovered, he would mournfully enumerate every single item that had gone astray since the day they embarked together. This Sophie did not do. Or she kept it to herself. There was the moment the loss was discovered, the anguish felt. Once is enough was Sophie’s stand. Lost objects wanted to be mourned. Ah yes, you could never grieve enough for those earrings bought in some back street of Genoa. But it was against Sophie’s principles to suffer the loss of anything more than once. How could Ezra take the side of things? Not that Sophie was absolutely sure. In fact she was haunted by those lost things in spite of her principles and it didn’t help to say: Good riddance, I wouldn’t be seen dead in those earrings today! They sent their ghostly eidolon: on the dresser of some hotel room. It was in the nature of things to do this, Sophie concluded, and in her nature as a woman of principles to resist. If that thing still haunts me, Sophie considered, it must be because I did not suffer its loss as truly, profoundly, as I should. But in that case there is nothing to be done. I have missed my moment; or the thing has missed its moment; that is why it keeps coming back. As for the loss of anything that caused her true anguish, that loss she carried in her very marrow, compacted with it. If at any time she had wanted to know the total of what had been lost, all she needed to do was state the last thing lost and Ezra would begin reckoning, today this, yesterday that, all the way back. But Sophie wasn’t interested. Keeping count was men’s business. That’s what her father did and both her grandfathers.

Excerpted from Divorcing © 1969 Susan Taubes. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.